Story at a glance

  • Despite the intense challenges of 2020, local leaders stepped up to demonstrate their commitment to fighting climate change last year — a movement that is set to flourish in 2021.
  • Incoming President Joe Biden has called climate change an “existential threat” and has ambitious plans to make the U.S. carbon neutral by 2050.
  • Federal support for new green infrastructure will put the U.S. on a path towards major innovation this year.
  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has also pledged to make the state the “green economy of the world.”

2020 was undoubtedly one of the most tumultuous years in American history — one that was rocked not only by a global health pandemic but also by unprecedented political divisions that infiltrated most facets of life in the country. Despite these trials taking the forefront in most minds, a pause button is never pushed on another even more daunting challenge: climate change.

Luckily, the fight against climate change didn’t cease either this past year. Just the fact that people were quarantined indoors in 2020 was linked to a 7 percent drop in the year’s carbon emissions, according to the latest report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

While the UNEP says this small drop will have negligible effects on the battle against climate change as a whole, the collapse of coal last year will certainly make a difference, as well as a growing boom of renewable energy installations. Heading into 2021, renewable growth may accelerate even further as President-elect Joe Biden's administration begins to execute on a political platform that includes rejoining the Paris climate accord, decarbonizing the power sector by 2035 and investing $2 trillion into clean energy.

Last year we also saw that states, cities, utilities and businesses were not waiting for federal directives before implementing green infrastructure of their own. Despite no explicit incentives included in the economic stimulus measures passed in response to COVID-19, renewables continued to edge out other electricity generation sources when electricity demand fell. As of early December, the share of renewables had exceeded that of coal in generation for 153 days, compared with 39 days in 2019. With local leaders continuing to step up to the plate, we can expect even more climate-conscious decisionmaking to take place in 2021.


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Local leaders are stepping up

In 2020, several states took the first steps in reexamining the long-term future of their gas distribution systems. California, Colorado, Massachusetts and New York all opened proceedings focused on gas planning, often following the lead of local city and town actions to limit or even phase out gas appliances. This year we can anticipate more states following suit, as regulators take steps to reimagine gas regulation as it relates to climate change goals.

One state that has already made bold climate change promises for 2021 is New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently outlined an ambitious agenda during a State of the State address. Cuomo shared that he plans to make New York the “green economy of the world,” and announced 24 new renewable energy projects that will take off this year, creating nearly 11,000 jobs in upstate New York alone. The projects include two massive offshore wind installations and the opening of a competitive bidding process for a new green transmission grid that would include lines running from upstate New York and the Hudson Valley to New York City.

Across the country in San Diego, Calif., new Mayor Todd Gloria is working on an ambitious climate action plan that will include “bold steps” to meet targets in greenhouse gas emission reduction. Gloria also proposed a new “climate equity fund,” which will pay for environmentally friendly projects in historically underserved neighborhoods, creating jobs and helping to boost health for constituents in need.


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Biden promises to fight climate change in a new way

Biden will be wading into an Oval Office knee-high in environmental rollbacks thanks to his predecessor, President Trump. From the beginning of Trump’s days in office, his administration sought to weaken or remove environmental regulations, rolling back major climate policies in actions that will take years to reverse.

To get started on that reversal, Biden has stacked his incoming administration with those who already have proven track records of incorporating climate change concerns into a wide range of their policymaking. 

Late last year, Biden named key members of his climate change team such as former EPA Director Gina McCarthy to lead a new White House Office of Climate policy, as well as tapping New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland (D), a congressional co-sponsor of the "Green New Deal," to lead the Department of the Interior. 

Biden’s coordinated new approach also seeks to ensure that vulnerable populations are no longer overlooked, as the incoming president has committed to help disadvantaged communities that have typically borne the brunt of fossil fuel industry pollution. Biden also plans on helping those who are losing fossil fuel-related jobs.

Companies and consumers reveal new priorities

“2021 will mark a new era of accelerated funding for climate resilience infrastructure that directly benefits environmental justice communities, and expands the role consumers play in expediting decarbonization,” predicts Nicole Sitaraman, vice president of strategic engagement at Sustainable Capital Advisors during a recent interview with Forbes. “2021 will be a seminal year of collaborative financial partnerships to create the scale of capital required to implement and accelerate a profitable and inclusive climate-resilient future.”

Sitaraman points to Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris for evidence to back up the prediction; they pledged $2 trillion in sustainable infrastructure investment. The two also promised that environmental justice communities would receive 40 percent of the benefits of funding, and several corporations and foundations have also issued statements of support for environmental and racial justice efforts.

2021 is also shaping up to be a year in which consumers will have even more of a hand in contributing to the country’s switch to clean energy systems. A recent study by Vibrant Clean Energy found that deploying at least 247 gigawatts of local rooftop and community solar on the energy grid is the most cost-effective way to transition to a clean energy system. The wide-reaching impacts of these local efforts will likely be felt in 2021, as everyday consumers are given new opportunities to show the extent of their environmental stewardship through the way they spend their money.


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Published on Jan 14, 2021